Thousands of Baltimoreans Practically Live on the MARC Train—Some of Them Live It Up
“We had been making out on the Metro on the way to [Washington’s Union Station],” recalls Daisy (not her real name; she would only identify herself as single, in her late 20s, and employed in the legal profession) in an e-mail. “Plus we had started out all touchy-feely in the bar. It was a little scary, but like I said, we had been drinking, so the thought process was not 100 percent clear.”
The post-rush hour train to Baltimore wasn’t full, so the conductors had blocked off one of the coaches. Daisy remembers hearing some giggles from other passengers as she and her date climbed over the metal bar partitioning off one of the rear cars.
The actual sex act took place somewhere between New Carrollton and Bowie. “It was fun and spontaneous, but it was only like 10 minutes,” she writes. “He was not long-lasting when he had too much to drink.”
Daisy and her stud (early 30s, works in information technology) didn’t get caught, and she’s not disavowing future appearances in the “third rail club,” but most evenings she belongs to an only slightly less notorious train society: the Martin State Airport Group.
Once they’ve run the bat-out-of-hell stampede that daily greets the 5:25 p.m. MARC Penn Line express train from Washington to Baltimore and points north, most passengers take pains to carve out as much solitude as possible for the ride home. They bury their eyes in laptops or newspapers, their ears in headphones, and generally avoid social contact with their fellows. Many try to sleep—those lucky enough to snag a seat, that is.
And smart enough to avoid the second-to-last coach.
There’s no rest for the weary commuter who finds him- or herself within earshot of the vestibule between the first and second levels of the penultimate car on Train 534. Any shot at slumber will be punctured by eruptions of booze-fueled laughter from a group of 15 to 25 MARC regulars who squeeze every evening into this 12-seat area, and who have transformed it into their very own happy-hour bar car. For more than a decade, the rotating cast of characters who make up the Martin State Airport Group—so called for the eastern Baltimore County train station where most of them disembark—have congregated here and nursed their commuting pains with camaraderie and cocktails.
The group was established by accident about 13 years ago, when Jim Fox began commuting from Parkville to a job in Washington as a project manager for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A genial, balding man of 59, sporting a department-issue windbreaker and department store tie, Fox doesn’t look like the ringleader of a band of commuter ruffians who have been recently threatened by police for disturbing the peace. The self-described “creature of habit” always sits in the same seat—the one nearest the door. “I like to be close to a door that opens at my stop, Martin State Airport,” he says. “I tend to get on the train fairly early on the way home, and this seat is always open.”
Soon after starting his commute in 1992, Fox developed another habit. “On Friday I would generally buy myself a beer or two, and then other people would sit around and take notice, and we’d talk.” As the group grew and strangers became drinking buddies, they expanded their cocktail hour.
“Now we drink on any day ending with a ‘y,’” Fox explains. “And these days it’s standing room only here, and you never know who’s going to pick up a six-pack or two.”
The group’s expansion has been fueled, no doubt, by the increased popularity of the Penn Line itself, which has nearly doubled its ridership since Fox started his commute, to about 16,500 rides a day in 2005, according to figures provided by MARC. In 1985, the first year for which MARC ridership data is available, the Penn Line served only about 1,100 people per day—less than the number of people who these days squeeze into just one 5:25 p.m. express train to Baltimore. As local mass-transit passenger advocate Christopher Field puts it, “I think when it’s standing room only, it’s hard not to get jovial with people.”
On a recent Wednesday evening, the train hasn’t yet left Union Station, but the stairwell and vestibule is already packed with Martin regulars. A middle-aged woman hands out paper cups of Champagne. Other people pass out beers. Fox holds court in his usual seat. “They call me the Mayor,” he says with a sly smile. “I’m not sure why.”
“It’s because you’re an institution,” someone shouts out.
The drinking party has itself become a fixture in the lives of its members. Not content with their time together on the train, they also communicate throughout the day on an e-mail list server and last month gathered at the Washington ESPN Zone for a Christmas party.
Across from Fox sits a strikingly pretty woman who will only give her name as Candace and say she works for the Justice Department. “Today’s my third time on the train,” she says, raising her voice to be heard above the din. “First time, I heard all this noise coming up and I thought, Why are these people so loud? God, it’s the end of the day. The second day all I saw was a seat, and I was like, ‘Can I sit here?’ And they said, ‘Oh, sure.’” She holds up a bottle of beer. “They’re so friendly.”
Candace says she’ll be back tomorrow. “Definitely. I won’t forget the Mayor,” she says, grinning at Fox. “We got very friendly today.”
Candace’s recruitment into the group is typical. Across the aisle from her sits April Phillips, a Middle River resident who works at American Association of Retired Persons headquarters in Washington. “The first time I ran into this group I was a little scared of them,” April says. “Because I’m from Virginia, and the VRE [Virginia Railway Express] is real staid, very quiet, no alcohol.” The first few times she was offered a beer by the Martin group, Phillips demurred. “And then once I had a tough day at work,” she adds. “And they’re like, ‘Do you want a beer?’ And I was like, ‘OK.’” That was two years ago. “And I’ve been hanging with them ever since.”
The Martin group isn’t the only spontaneous social club on the 5:25 p.m. The very last car also has a large group of drinking friends, and the third-to-last car hosts a card-playing section.
Ted Jones used to hang out and drink in the last car, but switched over to the Martin group about two years ago. “The demographics of the old group changed. They started getting into a fantasy-football thing,” says Jones, 42, a technical writer who’s been commuting to Washington from Towson since 1997. He prefers the “humor oriented” vibe of the more youthful Martin group, where the conversation runs the usual gamut of random chatter you’d find among drinking buddies anywhere: sports, complaints about work and commuting, gossip. Jones also likes the fact that there are more women in this part of the train, and he doesn’t mind chipping in more often for beer for the privilege. “Typically the guys bring beer more than the girls do,” he explains. “It’s a gentlemanly thing.”
So dedicated are its veteran members to the group, current members say, that even after they’ve relocated to the Washington area some continue to hop aboard the train for a quick drink before it leaves the station.
“There have been days when hanging with the train group has been the high point of my day,” Jones admits. “It’s one of those things I look forward to. I’m a single parent, so sometimes this is my adult time, you know what I mean?” He pauses. “Maybe I don’t have enough of a life.”
Such is the life of the extreme commuter, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as someone whose journey to work takes more than 90 minutes each way. Baltimore is tied with New York for the nation’s highest number of extreme commuters, 5.9 percent of the city’s work force, according to the 2000 Census.
The average travel time on the Penn Line is 50 minutes, according to MARC estimates, though it’s considerably longer for workers who, like most of the Martin State Airport Group, start out north of Baltimore. (The trip from Perryville to D.C. takes about an hour and a half.) Factor in the journey from home to commuter station, and then from Union Station to the office, and it’s a good bet most of the Martin group are extreme commuters.
Jones’ journey from Towson to Capitol Hill, for example, typically lasts 95 minutes. He drives half an hour from his home to Baltimore’s Penn Station. After an hour on the train, he walks five minutes to his office. He shaves off 10 minutes on the return trip by taking the express train back. He pays $175 for an unlimited-use monthly train pass, or about $4.34 per trip (a single one-way fare from Baltimore to Washington is $7.00).
“You get used to it after a while,” Jones says. “Like, if you had chronic pain, you’d get probably get used to that after a while. Anyway, it beats driving, and I get to hang out with all these folks on the way back.”
Like Jones, most of the Martin State Airport Group work in federal agencies or as government contractors, but they also include among their number an Army chaplain, a jazz musician, a conservation specialist at the Library of Congress, and a project manager for the Red Cross. You’d be hard pressed to find a bar anywhere that plays host to such a diverse scene: young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative, from West Baltimore to Roland Park to the northern Baltimore suburbs.
“My actual Baltimore-based social groups are not nearly as diverse,” says Jamie Bonadio, 53, an administrative assistant in a D.C. law firm who commutes from Perry Hall. “I value my friendships with everyone in the train group, and I dare say am more open and communicative with them than most of my Baltimore friends. And in my mind it’s because we spend a considerable amount of direct time with each other . . . [especially] with the MARC penchant for trains being late or breaking down.”
2005 was a difficult year for MARC on that score, with a rash of heat-related delays in the summer drawing negative media attention, and track work on the Penn Line causing serious delays in October. (The Penn Line is operated by federally owned Amtrak, the Camden and Brunswick lines by the CSX Corp.) According to the Maryland Transit Administration, the Penn Line was on time 89 percent of the time in 2005 (as of October), and 87 percent of the time across all three MARC commuter lines. In a 2003 MARC ridership satisfaction survey, 81 percent of Penn Line riders rated the train’s on-time performance as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” MARC chief transportation officer Ira Silverman says those are “pretty high ratings,” but he acknowledges room for improvement. “I would love to be like Metro North in New York,” he says. “Their on-time performance is 95 or 96 percent.”
For most commuters, the occasional MARC meltdown is an occasion to complain. For the Martin group, it’s an opportunity to play “MARC Bingo” (where contestants mark off on handwritten bingo cards the conductors’ predictable excuses for the delay) or an excuse to take off their clothes.
In the summer of 2004, the 5:25 p.m. Penn Line express broke down between the Bowie and Odenton stations for more than two hours. It was a 90-degree day, and conductors opened the outside doors. “Of course, that was not enough air circulation,” Bonadio recalls. “So with the blessings of Tim [Johnson], our favorite conductor, we took the emergency windows out of the lower level of the car. In the meantime, several people started taking clothing off, until some of the guys were down to pants and T-shirts and a few ladies were hiking up skirts and dresses.”
Then someone produced a deck of cards. Bonadio can’t confirm rumors of strip poker, but Janice Radel can. The energy analyst with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was the winner of the game that day. Though the weather was steamy, the poker action didn’t get quite as hot as Daisy’s New Carrollton-to-Bowie thrill ride. “It wasn’t too bad,” says Radel, a Joppa resident. “I think the loser was down to his undershirt and his pants, with no belt or shoes or socks.”
Still, the episode illustrates the cultural difference between MARC socialites and the vast majority who prefer to keep to themselves. Brian Jensen (brother of former City Paper staff writer Brennen Jensen) was in another train coach the day of the 2004 breakdown. He describes a rather less festive vibe in his coach, with tempers rising alongside the temperature. “Finally, these two lesbians decided they were going to take control of the situation,” Jensen says. “They removed the rubber from a window and threw it with great fanfare into the aisle, and the next thing you know everyone’s pulling the emergency windows off. It was almost like a mutiny or something.”
Jensen, a MARC passenger for more than 25 years, is a Train 534 regular and familiar with the Martin group. But he’s not a fan: “I don’t mind a little chattering and stuff, but I can’t take sitting in that next-to-last car because of those people.”
Not that Jensen is a prude or a quiet-car fanatic. The exhibit specialist at the Smithsonian Institute usually indulges in a beer on the ride home to Penn Station, and he has fond memories of the “queer car” that popped up on the afternoon express in the 1980s, when the train was less crowded (“and I was young and attractive”). These days, Jensen checks out his fellow passengers more for cautionary, rather than cruising, purposes: “Avoid anyone large. Obviously, children, avoid them at all costs. . . . Avoid chatty couples or someone yapping on a cell phone.”
Still, Jensen sympathizes with the need to blow off steam. “A lot of people in this cubicle-type society spend all this time by themselves, so [the train ride] is a big social time for them.”
Not everyone is as understanding.
On Sept. 14, 2005, MTA police officers boarded the 5:25 express at BWI and went car-to-car, notifying all riders that MARC policy prohibited drinking on the rails, and ordering them to immediately dispose of their beer and wine. The police had been called by the train’s conductors, who were responding to passenger complaints about loud and disruptive behavior from passengers drinking on board, according to Capt. David Marzola, northern district commander of the MTA police.
Members of the Martin State Airport Group say they believe the complainant was a certain curmudgeonly woman who usually sits in the upper deck of their coach, and who has frequently complained to conductors about the group. If you ride in her area, it’s easy to sympathize with her complaint.
In the upper deck, passengers mostly hew to the instinctive social compact that governs middle-class, mass-transit culture: The more people jammed together in a confined space, the greater their moral duty to ignore one another. From this perspective, the clamor of off-duty bureaucrats passing around a fifth of Jaegermeister before the train has left the station must seem an incredibly rude, if not dangerous, threat to civility.
Martin group members acknowledge that they can be loud, but they blame their volume on the crowded conditions of the train, not on their drinking.
A D.C. attorney who rides with the Martin group challenged the cops’ contentions that MARC riders were subject to Maryland’s open-container laws. In an e-mail response to the lawyer the following day, MARC’s Ira Silverman wrote: “There has been no change in MARC policy. Alcohol is still allowed on the trains. . . . I will contact our police and find out why they incorrectly described the policy.”
Capt. Marzola says the officers working that day were unfamiliar with the commuter train, and had assumed that the no-drinking policy applicable on all other MTA conveyances—buses, subway, and light rail—applied to MARC as well. “We have since reinstructed the officers,” Marzola says.
Silverman says alcohol-related complaints have increased in recent years and that they are most
frequent on the 5:25 p.m. Penn Line express, as well as the evening rush hour Brunswick Line that travels from D.C. all the way to Martinsburg, W.Va.
The increased complaints prompted the MTA to establish in September an internal committee to examine the drinking policy on MARC. “We’re just trying to look at the policy and see if it needs to be updated or changed, and how we would go about doing that,” says Marzola, who is a member of the committee. On Amtrak trains, drinking is permitted only in the café cars where alcoholic beverages are sold. There is no drinking allowed on the Virginia Railway Express, MARC’s equivalent service in Virginia.
The Amtrak trainmaster in charge of MARC operations at Penn Station, Gene Dandy, says he would personally prefer a prohibition of alcohol on the trains. “I really wish they wouldn’t drink,” Dandy says. “There’s been a lot of problems on the trains.” Passengers who drink, Dandy and other MARC officials say, are more likely to be loud and draw complaints from other passengers, thereby distracting conductors from their regular duties. (Marzola acknowledges that the MTA police force hasn’t taken a report of an on-train crime since August 2004.)
Martin group members voice resentment at any suggestion that their drinking should be either policed or prohibited. “It’s hard to tell a bunch of adults that they can’t be adults,” Ted Jones says. And having fought the law and won, the Martin group remains unrepentant in its rowdiness. “We’re not popular,” one of the group’s more boisterous members, Greg Rosoff, acknowledges on a recent train ride home. He gestures with an open bottle of beer around the cramped compartment and smiles. “But this is a legal drinking establishment.”
For Rosoff, the MARC train has been more than a traveling tavern, however, and his drinking buddies far more than a family of strangers.
The 34-year-old Towson resident and financial analyst at the U.S. Mint started commuting by train near the end of 2001. While waiting for the southbound MARC train to arrive at Martin State Airport, he sometimes chatted with Jim “the Mayor” Fox, who also caught the same train at 5:20 each morning.
One of those mornings in early 2002, Fox noticed that Rosoff looked like he hadn’t slept the previous night. It wasn’t the first time Fox had sensed that the former Marine with the crew cut, glasses, and determinedly cheerful disposition was hiding some personal stress. “Jim finally asked me what the hell was going on with me,” Rosoff recalls.
Rosoff unburdened himself. He had been spending his nights awake with his wife, Meredith, in the hospital. She suffered from severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an aggressive autoimmune disorder that had flared up about a year after their marriage nine years earlier, when she was 25. Her attacks were worsening of late. “She ended up being in the emergency room eight days out of 20” during part of 2002, Rosoff says.
At Fox’s insistence, Rosoff joined the Martin group that hung out together on the afternoon express. “And I got this secondary family,” Rosoff says. “If she was in [the hospital] for a week or two, they would insist on taking me out.” Rosoff became close with Fox, whom he calls “Father Train,” and with “Train Mother” Jaime Bonadio, but he kept his personal problems mostly to himself.
In 2004, Meredith was to be hospitalized for three months, to undergo a series of operations. Both her parents had recently died, and Rosoff planned to take time off work in order to take care of her. Several people from the train group treated Rosoff to a “pick me up” gathering at the Red Brick Station restaurant in White Marsh. It was around this time that he began to open up to his commuter friends about his wife’s deteriorating condition.
“A lot of people were just incredulous as to how bleak the circumstances were,” Rosoff says. “It was already a very tight group and probably has been for an entire decade or so, but I think this had a lot to do in some ways in binding the entire group together. They were essentially my only friends. I was active in a church, but as a result of my wife’s condition, I’d gotten so ridiculously isolated. And living up here but having to work in D.C., that really restricts your ability to have a large group of friends.”
One of the Martin group members with whom Rosoff began to develop a deeper connection was Jennifer Schehlein, a petite young woman from Rosedale who works as a conservation technician at the Library of Congress. Both graduates of Towson University, Rosoff and Schehlein discovered a joint interest in history and foreign languages, and they became closer friends throughout that year.
On Jan. 15, 2005, Rosoff arrived home and discovered his wife unable to breathe. She was hospitalized that night with adult respiratory distress syndrome, a sometimes-fatal lung disorder in critically ill patients, and would spend her final weeks at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. That night was the last he would speak to her.
“He had concealed her sickness from us for a long time,” says Schehlein, 28. “So once it came out, everyone was automatically very concerned. Everyone was on pins and needles, everyone wanted to be there for him.”
Rosoff released his wife from life support on Jan. 30. “She was on a ventilator, and her eyes were swelling and it was over,” he says. He called two people on the train group to let them know his wife had died and to request that he be left alone to mourn.
“I remember when we all walked into the funeral,” Schehlein says. “You could see the look of surprise on his face—I don’t think he really expected that. I think it really meant a lot to him. He admitted to me recently that he didn’t think he had that many friends, and he was relieved and shocked to see that the folks he had met on the train would also be there for him at the toughest moments of his life. That really cemented the fact that we weren’t all just drinking buddies.”
Ten days later, Schehlein insisted that Rosoff come out with her to a Valentine’s Day dinner in Mount Vernon. “I ended up on a whim getting flowers and having them delivered to the table,” Rosoff says. “And that had a lot to do with [romantic] thoughts later.”
But first Rosoff had to come to terms with his loss. “I’m not proud of this, but I don’t remember a whole lot of that time,” he says. “For the first month or so, February, parts of March, I was such a mess, completely nonfunctional at work, essentially drunk all the time. Not at work, but certainly after.”
Schehlein and others were determined to keep Rosoff socially engaged, despite his drinking three to four bottles of wine a night. “She just contacted and contacted and contacted me,” he says. They started dating in March.
To see Rosoff and Schehlein on the train together these days, you wouldn’t guess at the unhappy history that brought them together. She drinks wine, he drinks beer, and they complete each other’s sentences with matching chipper inflections:
Rosoff: We actually met—
Schehlein: And fell in the love on the train!
Rosoff: Jennifer just very aggressively pursued me, for whatever reason. She’s lacking in taste.
Schehlein: Lacking in tact, but not in taste.
Rosoff’s ordeal has had a lasting influence on the entire Martin group, they both say. “I think it’s just emphasized that we are closer friends than we realized at first,” Schehlein says.
But both know that in introducing romance to the commuter dynamic they’ve also introduced a risk to the group itself. If the relationship doesn’t work out, Schehlein doesn’t think she would be able to continue riding with her train friends, at least not for a while.
Several days before publication, Schehlein and Rosoff did discuss breaking up. “I think we both kind of know that we rushed into this relationship headlong and too early,” Schehlein says. But for now they’re going to try and make it work.
She reaches, naturally, for a train metaphor: “Everything’s back on track.”
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